125: Gill Sans: An Incomplete History of Type
Name: Gill Sans
Release Date: 1928
Designer: Eric Gill
Classification: Humanist Sans-Serif
Owned By: Monotype
Claim to Fame: Typeface for London North and Eastern Railway
This story begins with the designer of Gill Sans, Eric Gill. Although he had a controversial personal life, he was an important British type designer, printmaker, stone carver, sculptor and illustrator, who plays a significant role in the world of typography. He designed the typefaces Perpetua and Joanna, which were both named after his daughters and more importantly, the ever-so-famous Gill Sans, which some might call the Helvetica of England. But first, let’s start at the beginning.
Eric Gill was Born in the year 1882 in Brighton, England. He attended the Chichester School of Art and then later, the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. At the Central School of Arts and Crafts, he was an apprentice to Edward Johnston, a British calligrapher, in 1901. When designing his own type, Gill was inspired by the sans-serif typeface Johnston designed for the London Underground Railways.
Eric said, “The first notable attempt to work out the norm for plain letters was made by Mr. Edward Johnston when he designed the sans-serif letter for the London Underground Railways. Some of these letters are not entirely satisfactory, especially when it is remembered that, for such a purpose, an alphabet should be as near as possible ‘fool-proof’… as the philosophers would say—nothing should be left to the imagination of the sign-writer or enamel-plate maker.” His goal was to create a perfect and legible typeface.
In 1926, Gill experimented with his new typeface idea by hand-painting lettering for a bookshop in Bristol. Stanley Morison, an advisor for Monotype, noticed Gill’s achievements and commissioned him to create a sans-serif typeface to compete with the widely popular Futura typeface. Then in 1928, the commissioned typeface Gill Sans was released commercially by Monotype. In 1930, Gill wrote and crafted a book called “An Essay on Typography”, in which he voiced his opinions and philosophies on type design and included his predictions for the future of design. Eric Gill was one of the first people to receive the diction of Royal Designer for Industry award in 1938. Eric Gill died in 1940, due to lung cancer.
Let’s take a deep dive into the Gill Sans typeface. Firstly, Gill Sans is a humanist sans-serif typeface with some geometric features, which make it legible and readable in both large and small sizes. Gill Sans is humanist because it contains features that mimic pen-written letters. The most prevalent geometric feature of Gill Sans is its circular “O”. In addition to Johnston's Underground Railway typeface, Gill took inspiration from typographic classic roman proportions. This can be seen through the classic shapes of the “a” and “g”, as well as the vertical stroke ends on the “c”, “e” and “f”. The vertical stroke ends create an illusion of the stroke thinning, which connects back to Roman type. It also has a very clean cut and warm appearance.
Some other notable features of Gill Sans include:
A double story, hourglass shape lowercase “g”
A double storey lowercase “a”
A relatively small x-height
And lastly, the upstrokes and downstrokes have the same thickness (Only the “a”, “e” and “g” have thinner strokes)
The Gill Sans font family consists of 36 different typefaces, including light, condensed, bold and italic. Gill was the consultant for the design projects of many of these variations produced by Monotype. Compared to its competitors like Helvetica or Univers, the different type styles and weights were not mechanically produced from a single drawing, making each unique in their own way. For example, according to Monotype themselves, “each weight retains a distinct character of its own. The light font, with its heavily kerned ‘f’ and tall ‘t’, has an open, elegant look. The regular font has a more compact and muscular appearance, with its flat-bottomed ‘d’, flat-topped ‘p’ and ‘q’, and short, triangular-topped ‘t.’ The bold font tends to echo the softer, more open style of the light, while the extra bold and ultra-bold have their own vivid personalities.”
Over the years, one alteration was added to the Gill Sans typeface to make it more legible. In the original design, there was no distinction between the lowercase “l”, uppercase “i” and the number 1. To solve this problem, a small hook or serif was added to the top of the number one in a new typeface titled “Gill Sans Alt Fig 1”.
Now you might be wondering, how did Gill Sans become so popular and gain the title “The Helvetica of England”. Well, the year after its release, in 1929, Gill Sans was chosen to be used as the official typeface for the London North and Eastern Railway system. It could be seen on everything from timetables to locomotive name plates to dining car menus to advertisements. In 1935, Gill Sans was noticed globally, when designer Edward Young used it for the Penguin Books Jacket Design. By the mid 1900s, Gill Sans had become a corporate typeface and could be seen everywhere. Some more notable appearances include printed materials for British railways starting in 1948, as well as the BBC logo and branding in the 1990s. However, the BBC now uses its own typeface, BBC Reith for its branding and communication. In 2004, Gill Sans was even the official typeface for the Olympic Games in Athens.
However, there were some people who chose to disregard Gill Sans, but not because of the font design. Gill was known to have a bad attitude towards women and was very controversial. This didn’t stop the popularity of Gill Sans from booming.
Gill Sans Today
Gill Sans is still a popular typeface used today, both digitally and in print. Over 24 Gill Sans styles and weights have been made available digitally and has been recommended for both body and headline use. In fact, Gill Sans is a standard font both on Mac OS and Microsoft Office. Just like Helvetica, it can be seen everywhere from corporate logos and documents to advertisements and movie posters. I’m sure you have seen it out and about without realizing. Toy story, Tommy Hilfiger, Philips and Rolls-Royce are among the brands that use Gill Sans in their logos.
All in all, Gill Sans has been a popular typeface for decades and continues to be used today. I hope you had fun learning about the history and usage of Gill Sans throughout the years.
Cunningham, A. (1966). Gill sans. New Blackfriars, 48(557), 39-42. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-2005.1966.tb01037.x
Dozome, N. (2021, September 18). Gill Sans: The sacred and the profane. Medium. Retrieved from https://uxdesign.cc/bhakti-as-typography-58270ff8126c
Garfield, S. (2010). Just my type: A book about fonts. Profile Books.
Idsgn. (2009). Know your type: Gill Sans. Idsgn. Retrieved from http://idsgn.org/posts/know-your-type-gill-sans/
Lou, F. (2017, March 31). The history and characteristics of the gill sans typeface. Owlcation. Retrieved fromhttps://owlcation.com/humanities/gill-sans-typeface
About Our Guest Host:
Hi! I’m Johanna and I’m a fourth year Graphic Communications Management student at Toronto Metropolitan University. I’m pursuing a concentration in Publishing and a minor in Communication Design. I love anything related to graphic design, print, typography, and publishing. Gill Sans was an interesting typeface to research and I hope you enjoy this podcast!
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